Someone thought the world needed a live-action Pokemon movie, so here we are. In Pokemon Detective Pikachu, a young man named Tim (played by Justice Smith) turns to the title character (a fuzzy yellow critter voiced by Ryan Reynolds) to investigate an unsolved mystery. Along the way, they learn of a vast conspiracy at work against all of the Pokemon, who live with their human masters in the dreary Rhyme City.
The obvious comparison for this sort of cinematic landscape is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which it was clearly (and cleverly) established how animated cartoon characters have their own town but still work and interact with humans to varying degrees of success. A more recent update is the iffy but ambitious The Golden Compass from 2007, in which every human has a “daemon” animal that follows them everywhere that is an extension of their persona. I can appreciate the phenomenon of the Pokemon card game and animated series, but trying to make these fantastical elements literal and plausible doesn’t add up. Neither does the way director Rob Letterman is trying to make a film for small children look as much like Blade Runner as possible (!).
Here’s something that bothered me that the film is clearly unaware of: As presented here, the procedure of capturing and obtaining the Pokemon has a discomforting subtext. A helpful TV PSA tells us that “Once captured, Pokemon can be used to assist in our daily needs and remain with us throughout our lives.” So, in other words, they’re slaves. Right? Apparently, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” is the Pokemon battle cry that supports this word’s bizarre version of slavery.
If the above suggestion sounds too much for a children’s film, let’s at least consider how poorly considered this world is. Would anyone want to live in a busy metropolis where every human is accompanied by their personal Pokemon monster, which ranges in size, temperament and power ability? It’s one thing to have neighbors with angry dogs – wouldn’t a crowded city with the equivalent of cute demons walking around be just one fire breathing incident away from a full scale riot?
Never mind logic (which I’m sure was the motto of the film’s screenwriters), as the screwy “reality” presented here could have been easily digested if the lead actor gave a great performance and provided a center. Unfortunately, Justice Smith is terrible. So is his co-star, Kathryn Newton, and all of the human actors present. I felt especially embarrassed for Ken Watanabe and Bill Nihy (though it’s fun to just hear him say “pokemon”). Watanabe, in particular, has to suffer the indignity of appearing in yet another heavily westernized remake of a distinctly Japanese franchise. Were this presented in the Japanese language with Japanese actors and setting it in Japan, it might have worked. As is, it’s as awkward a hybrid as the clumsily westernized, Scarlett Johansson-starring Ghost in the Shell.
The grand finale abandons the detective plot completely and piles on lots of random nonsense and gratuitous plot twists that make it even more ludicrous than necessary. One action sequence, involving a unique earthquake, is impressively handled but little here leaves much of an impression.
Reynolds’ furry yellow avatar and his stream of quips is the best thing here. Yet, this is Reynolds at his most watered down and reigned in. While Pokemon Detective Pikachu has strong production values, ambitious visual effects, and is fairly interesting, this lavish oddity just doesn’t work.
One and a Half Stars
Rated PG/104 Min.
Photo courtesy IMDB